Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I will call Gill Furniss to move the motion, and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered funding for the Upper Don Trail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Cummins. I am delighted to have secured the debate to sing the praises of the Upper Don Trail. A trust of volunteers has worked so hard to bring out the best of that natural corridor through the north of Sheffield.
The Upper Don Trail is a natural trail that runs six miles along the route of the River Don from the city centre out to Stocksbridge. It takes in a combination of modern developments, historic woodland and industrial sites along its passage. In my constituency, the trail passes many notable sites, such as Hillsborough College, the Mondelez sweet factory, the Fletchers bakery, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and the Béres factory, home to the world-famous pork sandwich shop, much loved by the people of Sheffield. In places, the route meets national cycle network route 627 of the Trans Pennine Trail.
To follow the route is to follow Sheffield’s industrial past—former steelworks and small manufacturing factories run alongside much of the route—and the story of Sheffield’s ongoing redevelopment and future potential, as many former industrial sites are going through the process of development. Currently, cycling infrastructure from the city centre to the Peak district through Hillsborough, Stocksbridge and Oughtibridge is a mixed bag. The trust’s ambition is to raise the standard across the trail to ensure that it is accessible, flat and off road, and follows the course of the River Don.
In many places along the trail, that ambition has worked well. Many developers and councillors have ensured that where sites are developed, the trail is included in the scheme. The trust, through hard work, has completed improvement works on 8 km of the trail, and has secured funding for a further 9.3 km. Only 2.5 km of the trail still requires a funding proposal. Although Sheffield City Council and Barnsley Council are both incredibly supportive of the scheme, their hands are tied by funding limitations and Government requirements for active travel schemes.
The signs of development can be seen as the route leaves Stocksbridge and heads towards the city centre. Indeed, just outside my constituency, the route through Beeley Wood is paved, opening a safe and popular route to walkers and cyclists away from the busy Middlewood Road North. The trail then runs along roads for a stretch before re-joining historic woodland at the Herries Road railway viaduct and Wardsend cemetery, a resting place for fallen soldiers from the first and second world wars. Despite losing its Commonwealth War Graves Commission status, the cemetery is maintained by a team of passionate volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that the peace and natural charm are as open to as many people as possible.
As the trail enters my constituency, the disconnect becomes apparent, with users of the route having to walk alongside busy roads for a long period, and cyclists left with little choice but to continue along the busy dual carriageway into the city centre. I was pleased therefore to hear of investment by Sustrans, matched by Sheffield City Council, to construct a fully accessible route in my constituency between Herries Road and Wardsend cemetery. However, I understand that that exciting project has been put on hold, owing to engineering difficulties.
The trust remains committed to enhancing that portion of the trail. I was pleased to join them and other local groups for a work day in September to improve the existing footpath. The trust and many residents were disappointed when the planning committee decided not to include an active travel scheme to connect the trail by improving the existing on-road cycle route, but as a former councillor I know that planning committees must vote with the legislation. Therefore, I encourage the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Housing to ensure that planning officers and committees have more scope to ensure that active travel requirements are a condition of approving large developments.
The Upper Don Trail Trust’s emphasis on active travel and outdoor leisure activities is clear to see. The trail allows for a vast range of activities, ranging from rambling to rock climbing and cycling to kayaking. The trust works closely with local councils and other organisations to improve the trail’s accessibility and prominence. Sheffield’s seven hills and busy city roads may naturally put many people off cycling. After the Tour de France came to Sheffield, many local people took up cycling. The Upper Don Trail is benefitted by its mostly flat route, but the disconnected portions of the trail mean that it cannot yet claim to be a completely off-road network.
Active travel delivers immense benefits in a whole range of ways. The trust’s ambition is for people to use the trail on their daily commute as much as they would for leisure. Giving people the opportunity to travel to work, school or college in a more active way has been proven to do wonders for their physical and mental wellbeing. The NHS recommends that adults complete 150 minutes of physical activity a week. With active travel, that can be achieved through a 15-minute commute each way, five days a week.
The trust has identified that many are eager to cycle on their commute, but find the prospect of mixing with cars on busy roads daunting. That is reflected across the country, with research showing that 62% of adults feel that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads near them. The Upper Don Trail Trust’s plans would allow cyclists in Sheffield to commute through tranquil scenery, surrounded by woodland, rather than through loud and busy junctions.
As we all know, active travel is a key tool in our fight against climate change. By encouraging people to commute via carbon-free methods wherever possible, we can help to care for our planet at the same time as improving air quality in the local area. Air quality is an ongoing issue in Sheffield, as it is in many towns and cities across the UK. Along with most other cities in England, Sheffield has reported illegal levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide in some areas. Those toxic fumes can cause respiratory problems, including asthma, and damage the respiratory tract. Long-term exposure has also been linked to chronic lung disease. There is therefore a strong public health argument for schemes such as the trust’s, which allow people to run, walk and cycle in woodland away from traffic. That would also help to improve the air quality in our urban city centres by encouraging more people to switch to carbon-free travel on their commutes, thereby reducing cars on the road.
The trust also does excellent work to ensure that activities on the trail are accessible to everyone. For example, the trust’s ambition is to have more accessible footpaths leading down to the Don river. That would provide better access to the river for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities, so that they can take part in activities on the river, such as canoeing.
An army of local volunteers works tirelessly to keep the trail going. That includes Friends of the Porter Valley, a brilliant group who conserve the Porter and Mayfield valleys, a short distance away from the Upper Don Trail. Volunteers from the group often come over to help to renovate and maintain the trail. I place on the record my thanks for their invaluable work.
The reality is that the trust’s ambitious plans need the proper funding to unlock the true potential of the Upper Don Trail. Fundraising often forms the bedrock for funding projects such as this. For example, the Friends of the Porter Valley managed to raise more than a quarter of a million pounds to make improvements to the mill pond at Forge Dam. Sadly, however, many parts of my constituency close to the Upper Don Trail have high levels of poverty and deprivation. Hence, it is difficult for the trust to fundraise enough money in those areas to fulfil its vision.
That problem risks creating a postcode lottery for the enjoyment of nature. Everyone, regardless of background, should have the right to access the natural woodland close to them. However, disparities between different areas mean that the less affluent could be left behind. If the Minister is serious about levelling up, that stark inequality must be addressed through Government funding.
Unfortunately, national funding has not been readily forthcoming for the trust. A focus on on-road cycle routes by the Department for Transport means that off-road routes, such as the Upper Don Trail, have struggled to find funding. However, it is eminently clear that the Upper Don Trail is so much more than just a cycle path: it is a way to preserve the beautiful woodland scenery in South Yorkshire, to be enjoyed by people from different backgrounds; and it provides opportunities for fishing, swimming, running, climbing, horse riding, improvement of mental wellbeing and enjoyment of nature. These trails often become much-loved community resources that inspire a huge amount of local support for maintenance, litter picking, organised walks and runs. It would be impossible to quantify the immense societal value of the trail, and I am in no doubt that investment into it would be money well spent.
I urge the Minister to look at the support that her Department can offer to give this project a boost. The mission of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as set out on its website, is to
“restore and enhance the environment for the next generation, leaving it in a better state than we found it.”
If there is one project where the Minister can make good on those words, it is the Upper Don Trail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins—for the first time, I think. It is lovely to see you in the Chair. I thank Gill Furniss for sharing details of the work taking place in her constituency on the Upper Don Trail, which connects people from Sheffield right out to the Peak district. She has given a wonderful insight into not only getting out into the countryside, but the industrial history and all the other benefits of a trail starting within a city or town.
I particularly commend the Upper Don Trail Trust for its hard work in securing the public and private funding to make the project happen, as well as the efforts of all the volunteers, as flagged by the hon. Lady, who have played such a big role on what was previously an underused trail, as volunteers do on many trails around the country. I know that both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend Miriam Cates support the trail.
As we have heard, the trail hosts all kinds of opportunities for people and visitors for not only walking, but cycling, kayaking, climbing, angling, riding—you name it, Mrs Cummins, they are doing it. In most cases, the trail is away from traffic. It does not matter what age one is, either: anyone can use the trail.
I very much welcome the ambitions of the Upper Don Trail Trust and recognise that its objectives align completely with the Government’s objectives, as has been highlighted. As set out in the 25-year environment plan, we are absolutely committed to connecting people from all backgrounds with the natural environment, in particular for their health and wellbeing, and supporting people to access, enjoy and understand the great outdoors.
The lockdown highlighted the need for this connection more than ever, with 42% of people agreeing that they increased the time they spent outdoors during the pandemic. Trails along canals and riverways—such as the Upper Don Trail, which goes along the river for some time—were especially popular, with many people using those walkways. As the nature recovery Minister, I was particularly delighted by that, because it will help more people connect with nature; if they are connecting with it, they will love it and understand why we need to look after it.
There are all kinds of spin-offs. On obesity, which this Government are tackling with our strategy, trails will help everyone to lead healthier lives. There is also a big mental health spin-off, as we are using access to some of these trails in our green social prescribing agenda—prescribing walks and getting outside. All those ambitions are increased by access to trails such as the Upper Don Trail.
Active travel was referred to, which is another Government priority, which links to clean air. Away from traffic and so forth, the air is cleaner, so cycling and walking are obviously more beneficial.
I want to draw attention to the support available across Government to help people access nature. There is the £80 million green recovery challenge fund, which we launched during lockdown, with the aim to kick-start a whole lot of nature-based projects across England. One of the main aims was to connect people with nature. An estimated 23,000 people have engaged to date with projects funded by that fund, and a further 3 million have engaged with them indirectly, online, through media events that link to them. I think that is extremely positive.
The farming in protected landscapes programme was launched in June last year to help farmers in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to make improvements to the natural environment. There is a big element in there about improving public access on their land, including projects to deliver infrastructure—pathways and so forth—clearer and simpler signage, dedicated cycling access, better disabled access and walking routes to connect landscapes. For example, in the uplands in White Peak, in the Peak District National Park, the beef and sheep farmers there received funding to create a new permissive path to give walkers the opportunity to experience a variety of habitats within his land.
We are also committed to ensuring that the public have good access to footpaths. On Saturday, we published our response to the Glover landscapes review, which I am sure the hon. Member is aware of. We announced a new charity is being formed as a single strategic body for all national trails, which is something I think the hon. Lady will be particularly interested in. The aim of that is to share knowledge and experience between the trails, develop efficiency and effectiveness, develop bids for activities across the wider network and fundraise to provide more resources to enhance the network. There are some opportunities here. Sharing experience is so important. Every trail is different and is managed in a different way, and the bodies running them experience different problems. Sharing those experiences will be helpful.
Almost 2,000 miles of national trails exist in England and we are creating new trails all the time. We are connecting up all the bits around the coast to form the completed England Coast Path, which will be 2,700 miles when completed—the longest waymarked and maintained coastal walking route in the world. That is something to be really proud of, and might give us something to do in our spare time, Mrs Cummins—we can maybe walk some bits of it in the recesses. We are also developing a new national trail across north England between St Bees in Cumbria and Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, which will link up lots of bits of pathways that already exist, and complete the bits in between.
The Upper Don Trail is a really great example of how projects can do all the things we are talking about—restore nature, engage the local community, increase access to nature. I absolutely commend everyone who has been so involved in it. Obviously, it is not possible for me to commit to further funding at this stage for those small portions that are left to complete—there are two main missing links, I believe. My officials would definitely be happy to explore options, in particular when DEFRA might be involved. We do not have all the funding levers in DEFRA; there are other pots that the hon. Lady will be aware of. We can maybe work to unlock those other pots, which is a constructive approach when looking at grants.
I encourage the Upper Don Trail Trust to liaise, via Sheffield City Council, with Sustrans and its cycle network upgrade proposals. I appreciate how important it is to get rid of those sections on the road. In lockdown, I cycled more with my children on roads than we ever had before. That was fine, but when all the traffic returned, my children, who are quite grown up, did not want to cycle on the roads anymore—they wanted to use the paths.
I would also suggest going to the Department for Transport, which holds the pen on the national cycle network. My hon. Friend Trudy Harrison is the new cycling and walking Minister and is very keen to do joint work across Departments. I am keen to do that myself; I would urge others to also get together with the Conservative MP in Sheffield, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. The issue can be highlighted to the Department of Health and Social Care; they have a big responsibility for air quality. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made a point about the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; I urge her to make the case to that Department. She is on the right track—a good word to use in a debate about trails.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to talk about this subject. I thank again the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and all those involved, who have done so much good work. I look forward to hearing how the trail progresses.
Question put and agreed to.